The Ugly & The Unusual Pt. I

Perhaps I have a soft spot for objects which aren’t constantly lauded as the epitome of human artistic achievement, but I really do seem to love things which are rather… ugly. Or at least unusual.

Whilst in The Ashmolean last year, I came across a little skyphos (a deep drinking cup) of Odysseus being blown across the ocean by Boreas, a wind god, whilst surfing on an amphora. Unlike most (all) of the Greek vases I had seen so far, this didn’t depict stylised, elegant figures gracefully stretched across the surface of the pot, but a short, ugly little figure, almost like a caricature. It’s certainly not an attractive depiction, but I found it rather enchanting. It was almost comedic in its nature, Odysseus, the great hero of the Golden Age, reduced to a fat figure doing something in a way that couldn’t really be described as heroic – it really made me laugh. It is now firmly my favourite vase.

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Another thing I have a soft spot for, this time a piece of architectural sculpture, is one of the metopes – no. 26 – from the South Side of the Parthenon, which depicts the Centauromachy. Now, don’t get me wrong – unlike the skyphos of Odysseus and Boreas, there is no way that this sculpture can be described as “good” in any sense of the word. Neither object is beautiful, but at least the skyphos has comedy on its side. This sculpture is just bad. It’s poorly carved, it doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to look like, it’s just not good. It shows (or at least it’s supposed to show) a young lapith man (one of the good guys, here) clashing with a centaur (the bad guys) whose arms are raised above his head. Except, the centaur has no neck. Not even a little bit. He’s even worse off than Vernon Dursley. His muscles also aren’t properly articulated, and the horse bit of him sort of gets squeezed between his torso and the base of the metope, as if the sculptor ran out of space – so not only is it badly carved, it’s poorly planned, too.

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However, here’s the thing: the Parthenon was an absolutely huge building project, and the bloke whose idea it was wanted it done fast, so a load of sculptors were dragged into the project, and some of them were apprentices, still learning their craft. Evidently, the guy who carved this was, too, and now he has been remembered throughout history – for over 2000 years – as creating one of the most badly executed Classical metopes known to us. Can you imagine his pain?! That’s like one of us being remembered forever only in terms of what we produced during first year art lessons. So I guess I like this metope, not because I find something in it appealing, however odd or unusual, but because I feel sorry for the poor bloke who made it, and think that we should at least try, when commenting on the aesthetics of his piece, to give him some slack; perhaps we should even admire him for sticking it out to the end, despite how he must have known he had gone horribly, horribly wrong. On the plus side, the centaurs were supposed to be ugly, and his one certainly is.

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